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Iran forced to admit to downing Ukrainian passenger plane

Ukrainian authorities believe Iran wanted to avoid responsibility for the downed Ukrainian passenger plane that killed 176 people, and only admitted after Ukrainian investigators discovered missile debris at the crash site.

Story Highlights

  • Criticism directed at Iran’s leadership came from all factions inside the country. Even hard-line conservatives who exalt the military questioned its competence and what they called the deliberate decisions by senior military officials to misinform the public.

KYIV, Ukraine — Iran’s stunning admission that its forces errantly downed a Ukrainian jetliner — reversing three days of denial — did little to quell growing fury inside the country and beyond on Saturday as the deadly tragedy turned into a volatile political crisis for Tehran’s leaders and overshadowed their struggle with the United States.

Ukrainian officials criticized Iran’s conduct, suggesting that the Iranians would not have admitted responsibility if investigators from Ukraine had not found evidence of a missile strike in the wreckage of the crash, which killed all 176 people aboard.

Protests erupted in Tehran and other Iranian cities as dumbfounded citizens found a new reason to mistrust Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and other officials. Protest videos even showed some shouting, “Khamenei is a murderer!” and anti-riot police tear-gassing violent demonstrators.

Mr. Khamenei said he had ordered subordinates to be honest about Iran’s responsibility for the disaster. Both he and President Hassan Rouhani said they had not learned the true cause until an internal military investigation was completed on Friday. But that assertion raised new questions about how the two top leaders in the hierarchy — Mr. Khamenei is the commander in chief — could not have known.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, in his first reaction to Iran’s announcement, said his country would “insist on a full admission of guilt” by Tehran. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, home to many of those aboard the destroyed jetliner, demanded a “full and complete investigation” and said “Iran must take full responsibility.” Both spoke by phone with Mr. Rouhani.

Contradictions and miscues complicated Iran’s message even as it took responsibility for the downing of the plane, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, a Boeing 737-800 that was only a few years old. Iran’s military, in its initial admission early Saturday, said the flight’s crew had taken a sharp, unexpected turn that brought it near a sensitive military base — an assertion that was immediately disputed by the Ukrainians.

Rescue workers at the site of the plane crash near Tehran on Wednesday.Credit…Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

Hours later, an Iranian commander who accepted full responsibility agreed that the Ukrainians were right.

“The plane was flying in its normal direction without any error and everybody was doing their job correctly,” said the commander, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who leads the airspace unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — a powerful, hard-line military force. “If there was a mistake, it was made by one of our members.”

The Ukrainians further accused Iran of recklessly permitting commercial flights during a security emergency and of violating universally accepted procedures for a post-crash investigation. Bulldozers had heaped debris from the plane into piles on the ground.

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“Everything was done absolutely inappropriately,” Oleksiy Danilov, the Ukrainian security official overseeing the crash inquiry, said in an interview with The New York Times, referring to how Iranian authorities had handled the site of the crash.

Within Iran, as citizens vented anger toward their government, officials offered a mix of contrition and an insistence that Iran was not solely to blame. Mr. Rouhani called the error an “unforgivable mistake.” General Hajizadeh, whose forces were responsible, said he had wished death upon himself because of the blunder.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, wrote in an apology posted on Twitter: “Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”

But the official expressions of remorse did nothing to mollify angry Iranians who only a few days earlier were united in outraged grief over the American killing of a storied Revolutionary Guards leader, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani. Now they were once again out en masse protesting their government.

Some protest images posted on Iranian social media even showed torn photos of General Suleimani.

“Death to liars!” and “Death to the dictator!” shouted Iranians gathered in squares in the capital, Tehran, videos shared on social media showed. “You have no shame!” shouted several young men, and the crowd joined in a chorus.

In another tense spillover from the protests, the Iranian authorities briefly seized Britain’s Tehran ambassador, Rob Macaire, for what news accounts in Iran called his “involvement in provoking suspicious acts” at a protest. Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, denounced the seizure as a “flagrant violation of international law.”

Many protesters carried candles and placed flowers at the gates of the universities and other public places in Tehran. Conservatives and supporters of the government accused the authorities of intentionally misleading the public about what had brought down the plane. Its passengers included many young Iranians on their way to Canada for graduate study.

Criticism directed at Iran’s leadership came from all factions inside the country. Even hard-line conservatives who exalt the military questioned its competence and what they called the deliberate decisions by senior military officials to misinform the public.

Hamideh Zarabadi, a member of Parliament from the conservative city of Qazvin, said Iran should hold a state funeral for the victims, prepare 176 coffins “and write on each of them, 80 million times, damn to war.”

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Ms. Zarabadi’s comments were a slap at Mr. Khamenei and conservatives who had until Friday boasted about war with the United States and their plan for “maximum pressure” to avenge Mr. Suleimani’s death.

Mehdi Karroubi, a leader of the opposition Green Movement who has been under house arrest since 2011, issued a statement telling Mr. Khamenei that he no longer had the moral qualifications to be supreme leader.

And the editor in chief of the official Tasnim News Agency, Kian Abdollahi, said that lying to the public was as catastrophic as the plane tragedy and that all officials who lied must be prosecuted.

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The criticism of Iran over the crash threatens to eclipse whatever international sympathy Iran has garnered in its escalating confrontation with the Trump administration, which has faced widespread criticism over stoking a violent confrontation with Iran’s leaders.

In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an outspoken Iran critic who was among the first American officials to accuse the country of shooting down the Ukrainian jetliner, posted a message on Twitter that clearly alluded to the outrage in Iran on Saturday.

“The voice of the Iranian people is clear,” Mr. Pompeo wrote. “They are fed up with the regime’s lies, corruption, ineptitude and brutality.”

A protest honoring the victims of the flight at Amir Kabir University in Tehran on Saturday.
A protest honoring the victims of the flight at Amir Kabir University in Tehran on Saturday.Credit…Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA, via Shutterstock

Later Mr. Trump, in his own Twitter message, warned against what he called “another massacre” of protesters in Iran, an apparent reference to the deadly repression of demonstrators there in November.

“The world is watching,” he wrote.Donald J. Trump@realDonaldTrump

“The government of Iran must allow human rights groups to monitor and report facts from the ground on the ongoing protests by the Iranian people. There can not be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown. The world is watching.”

The plane went down in fiery destruction just a few minutes after departing Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport Wednesday morning, only hours after Iranian military forces fired a barrage of missiles at bases in Iraq housing American troops in retaliation for the killing of General Suleimani by a United States military drone in Baghdad on Jan. 3.

Iran’s aerial defense forces, worried about possible American reprisals for the missile attack, were on alert — even though commercial aviation in Iran was allowed to proceed normally.

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